Understanding The Cause Of Online Gaming Lag

Online gaming can be considered a perfect test of network performance because of both the meters installed in most games and the almost tactile response when things aren't working properly. Network performance is important for basic game playability, let alone progression through new, challenging content or competitive eSports. If you're running into gaming performance problems, here's some troubleshooting insight to pinpoint internet problems and other issues that could be affecting system performance. 

What Is Lag?

When online games seem to be moving slowly, causing players to jump randomly across the screen, or if a bad player simply needs an excuse for standing in fire during an encounter, lag is often blamed. In both online gaming and networking in general, lag is a term used to describe a delay in performance that is higher than normal. There is always some form of lag from any number of sources in a system, but the noticeable delay is what matters.

Many gamers have different levels of tolerance, which may be practical or for the sake of perfection. In theory, the lower your lag, the faster you can respond to an enemy's actions. Although the debate will never truly be solved due to personal preference and perception, latency under around 100ms (milliseconds) is generally accepted for most levels of online gaming.

That's not an industry-supplied number or something agreed upon by the gaming community. Lag is usually considered a problem when you can notice more than a second of delay between pressing the button for an ability or clicking your mouse to shoot a weapon and the actual action. The worst cases of lag, for example, include spell casters on games such as World of Warcraft casting a spell that should be instant, but their characters wave their hands around and swirl lights for five seconds or more.

There is a limit to lag depending on the game. If your computer can't respond to confirmations fast enough, it's obvious that there's a lag problem and the connection will be terminated.

What Causes Lag?

Since lag is latency or delay in network performance, anything in the network path could be the problem. Here's the general path, which is more complicated as you look deeper at each point:

  • Your computer. Inside your computer is a network card or a built-in network interface on the motherboard. Your game communicates with this card and the established internet connection. The delay is minuscule at this point but can be affected by file transfers that use up your computer's network capacity or bandwidth. Viruses and downloads take away from the available bandwidth even before the internet is used.
  • Your modem/router. Most internet users have a combination modem/router, which modulates and demodulates or converts signals to something your computer can use. This process adds delay. Modems are computers and can slow down if their bandwidth limit is overwhelmed or if they physically fail. 
  • The internet. The internet is a network of networks. Your information is not just sent straight to the game but through networks on the way to the game servers. Delays here are the responsibility of your internet service provider (ISP), but they may have to deal with other ISPs causing distant problems.
  • The game. The game servers are clusters of powerful computers. Servers have the dedicated job of handling network requests, which are the bulk of what you, your friends, and your enemies do on the game.

If you're having game delay and don't know where to start, contact an internet service provider like Reserve Telecommunications to discuss performance issues and a better connection.